During the 4 years I taught a class on ‘Talent’ for Gibs at one of SA’s larger banks, I used to ask the class of around 30 senior managers (I taught approximately 150 full day classes during the 4 years), what percentage of the class they were sitting in they thought was talented? Answers were written down on individual pieces of paper, and put into a box I handed around, to ensure anonymity. As you can imagine the spectrum ranged from 0% – 100%, with the weight of answers always being closer to 100% than to 0%.

This would always open up an engaging conversation about whether everyone was talented? In a business world in which there is a large focus on ‘talent’, the need to claim the label ‘talented’ is pretty intense. I understand that need. When the company you work for is assembling the most talented people in an industry, your future success relies on your inclusion in that pool of talented people.

Personally I don’t think everyone is talented. Even when you open the spectrum of what you can be talented at as wide as you possibly can, it’s still only a small minority of people who are truly talented in whatever endeavour or pursuit you focus on. I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of us are pretty average, and I don’t think that average is something you should be ashamed of. It’s a conversation for another day, but this idea of talent only became important, in my opinion, because clever consultants convinced business that it was a very important thing, and they were the only ones truly talented enough to help them navigate this new space (you can apply this same theory to innovation, diversity, efficiency, etc).

The Talent Stack

Enter Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame), in an article by Mikael Cho, ‘Why you don’t have to be great to build a great company‘. Adams suggests that the the correct collection of mediocre skills can serve you just as well as being highly talented in one area. He calls it the ‘Talent Stack’.

Even if you aren’t great at any one thing, you can still have a strong ‘talent stack’ capable of creating something exceptional. The quality of your ‘talent stack’ is less related to you being great at any one skill and more related to your unique mix of skills that makes you valuable.

The Talent Stack that enabled Scott Adams to build the highly successful Dilbert, looks like this:

  • Writing talent (simple and persuasive, but not Pulitzer-worthy)
  • Business skills (Good, not amazing)
  • Marketing and PR (good, not great)
  • Social media skills (mediocre)
  • Persuasion skills (above average, but not Trump-like)

I do like the idea that it can also be the combination of one’s skills (even if they’re mediocre), and how you use that combination that determines your success. I certainly don’t think the one approach is more superior than the other. There’s room for both. It does, however, take an enormous amount of pressure off of those people who so desperately want to be inside the ‘talent pool’.

Talent is certainly a ‘thing’, but it’s definitely not the only thing.